henry green, “concluding”

Henry Green
(Dalkey Archive; originally 1948)

It’s hard not to tear through the last Henry Green novel I have left, Concluding. Still on the shelf is Surviving, the volume of odds and ends put together by Matthew Yorke. I am glad I went through Caught and Back before Concluding: this book is not so consumed with World War II. Rather, it’s class that concerns Green; this is a usual subject for him, though here it appears in a different sense entirely that what might be expected. No two novels by Green that are entirely similar – Nothing and Doting, maybe, though I’m not sure how well that holds up – but this might be the oddest of them. Maybe this is why I like Green so much: after eight novels, he still surprises.

The plot takes place over a day; the previous night, two girls disappear from a girl’s school. The two administrators of the school, Miss Edge and Miss Baker, are more concerned with scheming on how to get an elderly scientist, Mr. Rock, to leave his house on their grounds; Mr. Rock does not want to leave, as he lives happily with his cat, goose, and pig, named Alice, Ted, and Daisy, respectively, as well as his granddaughter, Elizabeth, who is recovering from a nervous breakdown. At the school, a dance, for Founder’s Day, is to happen that night.

This is a lighter book than Back and Caught, almost pastoral, though this is a pastoral distinctly tinged with shadow. The image of dappled sunlight and shadow is one that comes up repeatedly here; this happens down to the level of the book’s sinuous sentences, which often start in one place and end some place else altogether. Here, Miss Marchbanks, interim administrator, considers what to do:

Extremely short-sighted, she had taken off her spectacles and put these on Miss Edge’s desk as though, in the crisis, at a time when she had been left in charge, she wished to look inwards, to draw on hid reserves, and thus to meet the drain on her resolution which the absence of the girls had opened like an ulcer high under the ribs, where it fluttered, a blood stained dove with tearing claws. (p. 39)

Or this love scene:

“Adams won’t like this,” she said, and turned with a smile which was for him alone to let him take her, and helped his heart find hers by fastening her mouth on his as though she were an octopus that had lost it’s arms to the propellers of a tug, and had only its mouth now with which, in a world of the hunted, to hang onto wrecked spars. (p. 46)

Immediately after this, one of the missing girls is found; but we never entirely learn what happened to her. Nor are her superiors in a hurry to find out.

There is something odd about this book. One notices first that Miss Edge tends to capitalize many of her nouns. At first one assumes this is cod-Victorian emphasis, though one wouldn’t expect that in a book by Green; likewise, the girls of the school all have names starting with “M,” which might be a stylistic choice to show off how interchangeable the girls seem to be. But as the book progresses, it becomes clear that the world that this book takes place in might not be a realistic portrait of Britain in the late 1940s, as one might have assumed from Green’s other books. Halfway through the book, letters arrive for Edge and Baker from a state functionary, directing them that a change has been decided upon, and the girls are to be trained to be professional pig farmers, because there is not enough opportunity for the girls in the “State Service”. We seem to be in a socialist Britain, albeit one that still has a queen. Going back to the beginning, the book reads differently; it becomes strange. We find Mr. Rock explaining to Adams how he got his cottage: “Why, when the State took over from the owner, and founded this Institute to train State Servants, it was even in the Directive that I was to stay in my little place” (p. 7). This doesn’t particularly stick out the first time through: all institutional language is affected and mildly ridiculous.

But here is the reason that Edge and Baker aren’t particularly interested in the girl’s disappearances: it will mean an agony of reports. Elizabeth explains to Mr. Rock, her grandfather, how things are, with particular reference to her lover, one of the girls’ teachers:

“You see, when you’re young and all that,” she went on, “starting in the State Service, because I know, Gapa, I’ve done it, things have so changed since your day, well then, then slightest bad report he gets and he’ll never receive promotion. Never. It isn’t a story, honest. No redress, nothing. And you realise what an Enquiry means, if you appeal against one of these awful Reports. It’s the end. Absolutely. Even if you think you’ve brought it back, it boomerangs back onto you. (p. 143)

An explanation for the other girl’s continued disappearance becomes apparent: Mary was orderly to Edge and Baker and was worn out from working, so she’s run away from the Institute. The delusional Edge considers this possibility and dismisses it:

Because they all knew that attendance on Baker and herself was an honour for which every one of the girls longed, it was just the little extra to be intimately close to them both. Nevertheless, she saw how the whole thing could be made to look if Mary did not come back soon, how black if this latest fantastic story was allowed to creep around. (p. 131)

Another explanation becomes apparent later: the girls, it turns, might not be as innocent (or as interchangeable) as they might appear. But, as the title suggests, nothing is ever concluded.

It’s not entirely surprising that this should turn out to be speculative fiction – the book did appear in the window between Animal Farm and 1984, and one might assume that something was in the air in Britain after the war – but it’s a surprise to be getting this from Green. The politics aren’t particularly surprising: Green never tries to disguise the fact that he was upper class, despite his empathy for the lower classes. It might make sense that this is the book Green wrote after Back; following this, he turned (self-consciously, presumably) to the upper-class trifles of Doting and Nothing, a turn that might be seen as a retreat if those books weren’t so good in their own rights.

henry green, “back”

Henry Green
(Dalkey Archive; originally 1946)

It’s hard for me to get around how good Henry Green was; one starts every novel expecting that this might be the one to let you down, but it doesn’t happen. Back might be seen as a sequel to Caught, the third of a rough trilogy starting with Pack My Bag, his oblique memoir: besides being the books that don’t have a participle for the name (leaving aside the early Blindness), these are books that document Britain during World War II: they show how things were, not how they are. They’re not as funny as his others, of course; Pack My Bag seems to have been written in a stately panic, while Caught comes out of the claustrophobia of the Blitz. Back seems to follow from the haunting final section of Caught, where Richard Roe has been evacuated to the country and is talking obsessively about what happened to him; but Charley Summers, the protagonist of Caught, seems to be the opposite of Roe: he can’t speak at all about what happened in a German prison camp, though one of his legs is missing.

For all its documentary force, Back is very much a novel – more explicitly so than Caught. There is a clearly constructed situation, with two different triads of children and parents. Charley, before leaving for the war, had an affair with Rose, who was married to James; Rose died while Charley was a POW, but she did have a son, named Ridley, that both Charley and James believe to be their own. (The reader is given no hints as to the parentage of this child; we view this through the lens of Charley, but his judgment is shown to be deeply faulty.) And Rose’s father, Mr. Graves, had another daughter, Nancy, by a different mother. After Charley returns, he visits Rose’s parents; Mr. Graves sends him obliquely to visit Nancy, not mentioning who she is. When Charley finally meets her, he thinks that she is a revenant Rose; there, paternity is the source of identity. With Ridley, who he sees for the first time not knowing who he is, he can reach no conclusions about paternity:

He was appalled that the first sight of the boy had meant nothing. Because one of the things he had always hung on to was that blood spoke, or called, to blood. (p. 9)

This incident, at the start of the book, sets the rest of the plot in motion. Having met Nancy through Mr. Graves’s machinations, he confuses her with her half-sister; there seems to be no real resemblance between the two women that any one else notices. This is not the first familial confusion in the book: visiting Rose’s parents, her mother, under strain, imagines Charley to be her dead brother. He chalks it up to the war; others, noting his confusion about Nancy/Rose assume the same of him.

What’s most interesting about Back are the odd relationships engendered by the war: Charley is on friendly behavior with the man he ostensibly cuckolded before the war, and on friendly behavior with Rose’s parents. There is no mention of Charley’s own parents; we might assume that they are dead. But it’s worth noting that Charley doesn’t pursue a relationship with Ridley, whom he believes to be his son; once, he makes a sign to the boy, putting his finger to his lips, but this is their only real communication. It’s the substitute family that becomes his: when Mr. Graves has a stroke, he visits often, and is there when Mr. Graves finally dies. This switch isn’t his alone: Mrs. Graves, who knows of the extramarital liaison that produced Nancy, has Charley bring Nancy to her house when Mr. Graves is dying; Nancy moves in and effectively becomes the couple’s daughter. Nancy does have a mother of her own, of course, with whom, she takes care to note, she was the best of friends; but the mother has been evacuated to the country and doesn’t appear. (Nor does James – the son-in-law of the Graveses and father of their grandchild – appear when his father-in-law is dying.) When Nancy and Charley finally decide to get marred, they plan to live with Mrs. Graves: an odd family of elective affinities.

Everything ends happily, or reasonably so, with a marriage on the way: it’s very much a novel in that way. It’s entertaining to watch Charley to bumble his way through his job, his life, and his relationships with women. But Back is a book about trauma; reading it, I found myself thinking again and again of David Cronenberg’s underrated Spider (based on a novel by Patrick McGrath that I haven’t read), another closely-observed story about a damaged man returning home after years spent away. The viewer of Cronenberg’s film doesn’t know what happened to Clegg in the mental hospital, though it can be assumed to be terrible; nor do we know what happened to Charley Summers in Germany. He does make one tiny admission about what happened to him, two sentences, ten pages from the end of the book: these two sentences don’t describe what happened directly to him, just how he was living, and they hit the reader with the blow of a hammer. We realize just how much has been unsaid in this narrative. Moments like this are scattered through the book: when Mrs. Graves admits to Charley that she knows about her husband’s other daughter, for example, and we realize how complex real world relationships can be. Mr. Graves, stricken dumb by his stroke but still conscious, can only watch the reassembly of a family (his wife, Nancy, Charley) which goes on in front of him on his deathbed. There’s little mention of Charley’s missing leg in the book, though it must cause him a great deal of trouble; most characters seem not to notice it, and even a doctor is surprised to hear that he has a missing leg. All these things have been swept under the rug, necessary, one supposes, for survival during wartime.

henry green, “caught”

Henry Green
(Harvill Press, 1943)

Caught seems to be the odd one out of Green’s books: it’s the only one that’s out of print in the United States. Berkley Medallion published a paperback in 1960 available on Amazon for wildly inflated prices; since then, as far as I can tell, potential readers have had to have recourse to the British edition. It’s also, and perhaps relatedly, the only book of Green’s that John Updike didn’t like, as he admits in his introduction to Loving/Living/Party Going. But the strangeness of the book really starts with the title: Caught is a verb, like most of Green’s other titles, but it’s in the past tense, not a gerund. Green’s other books describe how things are; this one describes how things were. Caught depicts a specific point in time – the Blitz in London – and was published soon afterwards (1943). There’s a documentary character to this book that isn’t in Green’s other novels; it feels much more like Pack My Bag, Green’s memoir of his youth than Loving, which followed two years later (and which is also set during World War II). Most of all, it’s not comic: there are comic elements, of course, but this is a much more serious book.

Caught describes the lives of firefighters in London at the start of World War II as they wait for the bombing of London to begin. It’s an exceptional state: no one behaves as they normally would, and no one is quite sure what the new rules are or how long this will last. The characters hang suspended: they are doing what they know is dangerous work; indeed, at the end of the book, a number of them are dead. The lives that they are living are unsustainable; the book ends with a coda where we learn that the central character, Richard Roe, has been sent home:

Some months later, after nine months of air raids on London, Roe was unlucky one morning. A bomb came too close. It knocked him out. He was sent home, superficially uninjured. They called it nervous debility. (p. 173)

The nine months of air raids on London fall into the eight blank lines above the beginning this section: they’re not described directly, though Roe haltingly attempts to describe them to his sister-in-law. But the disaster is not written about directly: preparations for it fill most of the book, and its repercussions finish the book. What happened can’t be described directly; maybe it’s something that can’t be explained. Green, it should be said, was a firefighter in London during the war; like Roe, he would have been upper class and somewhat out of place, but how closely Roe’s life corresponds to his, I don’t know. This is a book written in the middle of WWII; the grand narrative that came out of that war (of good defeating evil) had not yet been constructed, and whether the actions of the firemen in London were brave or delusional hadn’t yet entirely been defined. Roe attempts to explain what happens to his sister-in-law:

“The first night,” he said, “we were ordered to the docks. As we came over Westminster Bridge it was fantastic, the whole of the left side of London seemed to be alight.”
(It had not been like that at all. As they went, not hurrying, but steadily towards the river, the sky in that quarter, which happened to be the east, beginning at the bottom of streets until it spread over the nearest houses, was flooded in a second sunset, orange and rose, turning the pavements pink. Civilians hastened by twos or threes, hushed below the stupendous pall of defeat until, in the business quarter, the streets were deserted.) (p. 177)

Two more paragraphs encircled in parentheses follow, describing what happened from an omniscient point of view. Roe at this point has not entirely regained his language: he struggles to explain something that made an immense impression on him, but largely fails, and his sister-in-law remains uncomprehending. But the omniscient narrator’s point of view is curious and worth scrutinizing. Roe describes what he saw from his perspective (“the left side of London”); the narrator’s description is not so much more objective but more artful. Detachment seems to be necessary to attain this artfulness; a beautiful description, coming from Roe, would seem callow, as he’s describing a situation in which his fellow firefighters – “friends” doesn’t really work, as Green’s books are always attuned to class distinctions – are going to be killed.

These parentheses have appeared before in the book, more mystifyingly, at the beginning. Roe is second-in-command to Pye, an older trade-unionist; Pye lives with his elderly sister, who is not quite right in the head. Pye’s sister, wanting a child, kidnaps Roe’s son Christopher; the situation is soon sorted out, but it necessarily complicates the already fraught relationship between Pye and Roe; Pye’s sister is sent to an asylum, and Christopher is sent to the country. Roe attempts to reconstruct what must have happened, but fails; the two primary participants, a child and an insane woman, can’t explain what happened. Parenthetical paragraphs serve to do this; we are dragged outside of the character’s point of view so that we can understand what happened.

Christopher figures only in the fringes of this book, but he’s especially well done as a character. He’s decidedly not romanticized:

Christopher was like any other child of his age, not very interested or interesting, strident with health. He enjoyed teasing and was careful no one should know what he felt. (1)

This is perfect: when such a description appears on the first page of the book, you know it’s worth reading. It’s not altogether unexpected – but still shocking – when we near the end of the book Christopher has this interaction with his father in the country:

“Look,” his father interrupted, “haven’t you knocked those branches about enough? There’s hardly a bird left in the garden since you’ve been out. You’d do better to put food for them. They starve in this weather you know.”
“They’re Polish people,” Christopher said, “and I’m a German policeman, rootling them about.”
“Well, if that’s so, hadn’t you better carry on the good work where it’s drier? Why not go back to the stables and see if you can’t kill some more mice with a spoon? You could think they were Czechs,” his father said.
“Oh thanks, I say. That’s a lovely idea,” and he ran off, stumbling in the snow, diminutive. (p. 190)

Children are more terrible than they know; but there’s a realism to this description.

This is necessarily a solemn book; and the effect from reading it is different from any of the other books by Green. It’s not my favorite of his work; I wonder if it would be anybody’s, just because his other novels are so powerful. But it’s not the worst of his books: Blindness is clearly juvenilia and suffers in comparison to the rest.

king kong in literature

“The Auxiliary on guard with him had been in the Navy. Some time ago this man had seen ‘King Kong,’ the film of an outsize in apes that was twenty foot tall. Roe’s explanation was that the experience had had a lasting effect on his adjectives. One in particular, ‘conga,’ he used to cover almost everything.

‘A conga night,’ he said. He called each Rescue man ‘cock.’ He remarked that their whisky was dodgy. He went by the name of ‘Shiner,’ because his surname was Wright.”

(Henry Green, Caught (1943), p. 41.)

henry green, “doting”

Henry Green
(Penguin, 1952)

I’ve been slowly working my way through Henry Green – slowly here partly because I want it to last, and partly because I’ve been slowing my reading down this past year. Doting is Green’s last full novel, but the middle of Penguin’s second omnibus, now seemingly out of print. It’s odd that Living / Loving / Party Going seem to be the Green novels that everyone reads; Dalkey Archive keeps most of the rest in print, but they don’t seem to sell nearly as well as the Penguin Classics; there’s an order of magnitude of difference in the Amazon sales rankings. Does a John Updike introduction really get you that far? Blindness is clearly juvenilia, but Nothing and Doting are as funny and well-plotted as anything in Living / Loving / Party Going. Maybe it’s just that American readers are suspicious of small novels.

Doting follows on from Nothing: like that book, it might be described as a romantic comedy composed of a series of scenes set between two characters. It’s a light subject – and it’s a book that can be read quickly – but not without an undercurrent of sadness that comes out from time to time. The book begins with the middle-aged Arthur and Diana Middleton out for a celebratory dinner at a nightclub with their son Peter, who’s home in London on vacation from boarding school, along with Annabel Paynton, a few years older than Peter and the only daughter of friends of the Middletons (who remain only a threat for the duration of the novel). What she’s doing there isn’t entirely clear to the reader: while she’s almost the same age as Peter, she seems much more interested in his parents, and Arthur, though he has known her since she was a child, is suddenly interested in her.

The stage is set for a rectangle of relationships; but Peter is soon shoved aside, being sent off to Scotland, and replaced by Charles Addinsell, Arthur’s best friend. (The names, it should go without saying, bear inspection: the Middletons are set up as being a very ordinary couple, Ann functions as a pain in their marriage. “Addinsell” suggests math and business; he’s substituted into a zero-sum game.) Arthur falls for Ann, and starts taking her out to lunch; she is happy to have lunch bought for her & tells her friend Claire that she’s interested in older men. Diana catches Arthur and Claire in a compromising situation when she’s supposed to be going to Scotland with Peter; she goes to confide in Charles and begins an affair of her own with him, although nothing is consummated, to the chagrin of Charles. Ann, jealous of Diana’s place, suggests to Arthur that Diana is having an affair with Charles; this does not displace Arthur but draws him back to Diana, who then tries to pass off Ann on Charles. This succeeds; Arthur then finds himself jealous again, as does Diana. Things carry on: Diana tries to split up Charles and Ann by introducing Charles to Ann’s friend Claire. This set-up works: and by the time the novel closes, with the original foursome back at another nightclub for a last dinner before Peter returns to school, the reader has the sense that everything has returned itself to the original state. Except not quite.

As one might expect, there’s a fair amount of lying in this book, which becomes rather convoluted. Here Arthur is trying to find out if Diana has told Charles anything about what she saw when she caught him with Ann:

“. . . . But she hasn’t said a word?”
“She wouldn’t, Diana couldn’t,” his guest lied in a flat voice. “Her loyalty’s like an oyster, and you’d cut yourself if you tried to open it with an opener.”
“Yet there are men who deal with dozens a minute out of a barrel.”
“Oh,” Mr Addinsell objected, “then, I imagine, they’ve all got their cards, are members of the Union. Any pearls they may find have to go to the credit of the Benefit Fund.” (p. 249)

There are several layers at work here: first, of course, Charles is lying in his response to Arthur’s question, because Diana has said something to him: Diana told Charles that she found Arthur in bed with Ann. Arthur previously told Charles what actually happened – Ann was trying to get a coffee stain out of her skirt, though they had been kissing – so Charles knows that one of them must be lying; as he knows them well, he probably knows that it’s Diana. But there’s also indirection in Charles’s answer: he doesn’t give Charles a flat-out yes or no – Arthur’s question, formulated in the negative, resists such an answer – rather, Charles falls back on generalizations about how Diana’s behavior, which he knows to be false. On another level, though, Diana is loyal: for a comedy based on the threat of adultery, no adultery actually takes place, though there’s every opportunity for it. Rather, Arthur and Diana’s marriage appears to be incredibly stable, like Charles’s oyster: they do appear to genuinely love each other.

Have things returned to normal at the end of this book? Charles, who seems like the force most likely to destabilize the Middleton’s marriage, has been taken out of play with the conveniently available Claire. In the final scene, the foursome has become six, joined by Charles and Claire; but there’s the sense of a lack of closure. The object of Ann’s affection may have moved on from Arthur, though it’s unclear that Arthur is entirely over his infatuation with her; and Diana still seems to feel pangs of jealousy watching Charles and Claire. Peter has been promised wrestling at the nightclub; the wrestlers never arrive:

“. . . . Well, you know, Di, I’m wondering if there is to be any tonight, when all’s said and done.”
“Oh no, Arthur! After you promised those wrestlers to Peter?”
“But if they are to show up, they’re being a bit slow about it, surely?”
“In any case, he can’t have anything. Now should he, Charles?” the mother said, using a suddenly bored voice.
“Got to learn to go without,” Mr Addinsell agreed. (p. 332)

And here (a few page later) the book ends: the situation is unresolvable, but it must be resolved; life has to continue.

henry green predicts the future

INTERVIEWER [Terry Southern]: And yet, as I understand this theory, its success does not depend upon any actual sensory differences between people talking, but rather upon psychological or emotional differences between them as readers, isn’t that so? I’m referring to the serious use of this theory in communicative writing.

GREEN: People strike sparks off each other; that is what I try to note down. But mark well, they only do this when they are talking together. After all, we don’t write letters now, we telephone. And one of these days we are going to have TV sets which lonely people can talk to and get answers back. Then no one will read anymore.”

(Henry Green’s Paris Review interview, from summer 1958.)

henry green, “nothing”

Henry Green
(Penguin, 1950)

I went to a reading the other night; the opening readers (and performers, it was that sort of event) were terrible, so I left at an intermission to have dinner with the people I’d come to the reading to see. After dinner, I got on the uptown train to go home; I was reading this book, an omnibus edition of Nothing, Doting, and Blindness. The woman across from me was looking at me strangely, and I may have been looking at her strangely because she looked like one of the people who had been reading that I’d been introduced to in passing; she reached in her bag and pulled out the Dalkey Archive edition of Nothing, and we had a conversation about how fantastic Henry Green is and what a shame it is that nobody seems to read him. She got off at the next stop after we re-introduced ourselves; this saved me the embarrassment of having to explain that I hadn’t actually seen her read, though she was the only one in the line-up that I’d been half interested in hearing. I have been reading books in the trains of New York for a long time, but this is the first time this sort of thing has happened to me, as far as I can remember. Maybe I’m reading the wrong books.

Henry Green is fantastic, of course, even if one isn’t making conversation on trains. I tore through Living, Loving, and Party Going last November while in Mexico, read Blindness, in this volume, on the flight home from Christmas, and Pack My Bag somewhere in between; all the rest save Caught, which is out of print and expensive, are on the shelves waiting to be read. Nothing has taken a little while to get back to: I was reading too fast, I thought, and I needed to slow down. Henry Green seems a bit imposing, I think: like Ronald Firbank, this novel is almost entirely dialogue, and if you’re not reading carefully, a great deal can get lost. Once you’re in, though, it’s hard not to be swept along.

The title is from Shakespeare, of course; Much Ado about Nothing with its pairs of starcrossed lovers is an obvious model for the book. Philip and Mary want to get married; their widowed parents, Jane and John, respectively, were once lovers and are still friends. Dick and Liz are Jane and John’s current lovers, though they’re of little consequence, as are, for what that’s worth Philip and Mary. When it’s followed in this volume by Doting, the title suggests the word’s Elizabethan pronunciation, “noting”; as in the play, there’s a great deal of crossed communication. Here Philip discusses wanting to call off his marriage with his mother:

‘All right my dear,’ she said, ‘But you seem very touchy about this. She’s a nice girl I agree yet I also know she’s not nearly good enough for you. What are we to do about it, that is the question?’
     ‘To be or not to be Mamma.’
     ‘Philip don’t dramatize yourself for heaven’s sake. This is no time for Richard II. You just can’t go into marriage in such a frame of mind. Let me simply think!’

(p. 108.) Philip’s response, though he probably doesn’t realize it, is loaded; though the question isn’t “to be or not to be Mamma” but whether his actual father isn’t John, the father of his fiancée, as has been hinted by others. The threat of incest hovers over the book: two-thirds of the way through the book Mary asks her father point-blank if Philip and she are really half-brother and sister, which he strenuously denies. The perceptive reader, however, will have noted that if John is Philip’s father, it’s still entirely possible that John might not be the half-sister of Mary if she is as illegitimate as he is.

As in Much Ado about Nothing, this is a comedy, though there’s a darkness behind it. The subject matter is nothing if not slight; the joy of the book is how perfectly it’s accomplished. The book is almost entirely structured in scenes of dialogue between two characters: they are substituted in and out. The primary exception is the novel’s central scene, a party that Jane has thrown ostensibly for Philip’s twenty-first birthday but actually for herself. Philip and Mary attempt to upstage the action by declaring their engagement, but are deeply disappointed when nobody seems to care as much as they had hoped. This interchange between the two of them is at the center of the novel:

     ‘I say,’ he said, ‘you do feel better now, you must?’
     ‘I think so, yes,’
     ‘Can’t find out yes or no.’
     ‘But no one can. First something inside says everything is fine,’ she wailed, ‘and the next moment it tells you that something which overshadows everything else is very bad just like an avalanche!’
     ‘I’m so sorry,’ he said. ‘I truly am.’
They danced again and again until, as the long night went on they had got into a state of unthinking happiness perhaps.

(p. 88.) The way the punctuation is deployed for emotional balance here bears note: in particular, that dangling “perhaps” which doesn’t get a comma and pulls down everything that’s come before it. Mary and Philip aren’t the center of the novel, of course; this is a book about their parents, and Philip comes off as a mooncalf. This is a book about middle age: Mary and Philip are too young to realize what’s going on around them. The reader’s affections lie with John and Jane. In the end, the adults have re-paired, but it’s unclear what will happen to Mary and Philip; they’ll be fine, one suspects.

Edmund White says in his recent memoir that Nothing is the book he’s read the most times. It’s a book that would lend itself to re-reading; the cyclical motion of characters from one scene to the next suggests it. And one wants to inhabit the world of the book, even though if you don’t particularly care about the social manners of the upper class in post-WWII Britain; it’s like Proust, in that regard. But this is also a book that’s tremendously funny: for me it trumps Waugh.

as if she were in at a kill

“Not that Mr Pomfret appeared to pay heed. A pale smile was stuck across his face while he looked about as though to receive tribute. But the attention of almost everyone in that room was still fixed on the awkward happy couple, and Elaine Winder smacked their backs and generally behaved as if she were in at a kill.”

(Henry Green, Nothing, p. 78.)